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Business Support in Wood Buffalo

Bradley Karp
BY Bradley Karp
(1 Vote)

As we move away from the wildfire and further along the road to recovery not just from ‘The Beast’, but also the downturn in the economy that began in earnest in late 2014, it’s important to recognize the work of the organizations that help support local small and medium businesses on many levels.

The one thing that truly struck me in writing this brief about what these groups do and how they do it is that the fire seems to have given everyone in the business support community a renewed focus, energy and willingness to work together (more than likely forced under the circumstances) but that our business community is better off for it.


Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association (NAABA)

With Wood Buffalo falling in Treaty 8 territory NAABA plays a lead role in helping Aboriginal peoples and businesses secure work and training with industry. Full members of the non-profit are certified majority Aboriginal owned and local to the region.

“When it first started, it was local Aboriginal business [people] who came together to want to increase opportunity for Aboriginal business and help form a group that had a solid voice in terms of working with industry and for the purpose of getting contracts,” said Executive Director Leanne Hawco. “So since then, that’s what we’ve been doing, connecting Aboriginal business with industry as well as providing opportunity for business development.”

Currently, there are about 130 full-members (at least 51 per cent Aboriginal owned) and 140 associate members (generally industry members looking to hire full-members).

The Association has its own internal network called NAABA net that allows industry members to post Request For Proposals (RFP) on the internal server to allow full-members to bid on the contracts.

NAABA also helps industry and regional companies create or improve their Aboriginal engagement policy.

“We can assist them on that, in terms of helping them connect with companies that have a good structure,” said Hawco. “We don’t do a lot of the policy work necessarily but sort of guide them to the groups that we see as having good Aboriginal engagement policies.”

What makes a good Aboriginal engagement policy? For starters, just having one is a big step forward for most companies.

“A lot of companies don’t have them, and I think that involvement if you’re doing work in this area or any area where there are Aboriginal communities there needs to be that respect in knowing that there’s production of work happening in that area. This just ensures that companies are respectful to that.”

That policy is different for each company, but many of them will go through NAABA just to do their due diligence, and when they’re part of NAABA as an associate member it just further proves their commitment to the Aboriginal community.

As for the future, the organization would like to stick true to its roots, and really dig into the grassroots level to impact the Aboriginal youth of the region.

“Our association wants to encourage kids in high school, Aboriginal youth to know that when they’re in school that there’s opportunity when they come out of school and partnering with Keyano College is a positive way to do that as well. So when they step out of school, and step out of college and they want to start a business they can come to us and we can show them some of the directions they can go in.”

While the organization hopes to have an even greater impact moving forward, it has become a leader in its community and a bit of a beacon for First Nations and Aboriginal economic development. Industry and the oil sands have been a massive driver of economic opportunity for the Aboriginal peoples of North Eastern Alberta.

“I think NAABA has always been a leader, and I think that Fort McMurray itself is a leader, the relationship between industry and the Aboriginal businesses here is a really good example. I think some of the work that they have done together is a good showcase for the rest of Canada as to how they can do it, and how they can do it better,” said Hawco.

According to Natural Resources Canada in May of 2016 Shell has spent nearly $2.5-billion on contracts with Indigenous companies since 1999. Syncrude has done $2-billion with Indigenous-owned businesses while Shell has spent over $1.7-billion spread over 70 different Indigenous-businesses since just 2005. Since 2014 alone Cenovus has spent more than $384-million on goods and services supplied by Indigenous-businesses.

Meanwhile, the Fort McKay Group of Companies, which is 100 per cent owned and operated by the Fort McKay First Nation, generates more than $150-million in revenue annually, one of many success stories when it comes to first Nations companies in working in the oilsands.

“There are lots of success stories, we can go on and on. Dave Tuccaro being one of the most successful Aboriginal business leaders in Canada is quite amazing. Our Board President, Nicole Bourque-Bouchier has been recognized as one of the top 100 women in Canada for entrepreneurship,” said Hawco about some of the success stories. “Then we have groups like Birch Mountain Enterprises [...] they’re making donations to the Health Foundation and Keyano and they’ve become quite involved in the community and they’ve only been around for five years.”


Fort McMurray Chamberof Commerce

It’s impossible to talk about business and the local economy without of course diving into the Chamber of Commerce.

One of the ways the Chamber helps local small businesses is as simple as making connections through a number of networking events. Although the busiest time of year is October, for Small Business Week.

“We do free learning sessions, everything from HR to Marketing to accounting help. So business owners can actually come in, sit down and learn about those fields, and afterward we actually end the week with our business awards,” said Executive Director Alexis Foster. “This is only our third year doing Small Business Week. We really wanted to do something more than just having our awards. Lots of different businesses in the community have that expertise.”

Last year, about 400 people attended the roughly 20 learning sessions, while the attendance for the awards banquet ballooned from 130 to over 250 people over the last few years.

The Chamber also hosts a monthly networking luncheon, although, with a younger business population, Foster is hoping to freshen things up so it’s not just a lunch with a speaker.

The most impactful work carried out by the Chamber and its two person staff, though, is policy and advocacy work. Working with Chambers in Alberta and across the country, the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce is working to develop policies to help push forward business in the region.

One example of that work helped a local business get out of paying three-times as much in taxes each month following a Municipal by-law change.

“We worked with the Municipality, and they’re good for working with us when we bring them a solid case, and they worked with that business owner and brought their fees down to something much more reasonable,” said Foster. “We are the voice of business, that’s our slogan, that’s our motto.”

It’s no surprise that the toughest challenge facing local small and medium-sized businesses is labour. During the boom years it was tough to keep staff from leaving for higher paid gigs in the oilsands, and now it’s tough to find people who are qualified for local positions.

“We worked to do some job fairs; we’ve done three here and one outside of the community just to try to attract those people into those roles. That’s one of the things we keep hearing from business owners is that it’s tough to find qualified staff, especially when it comes to positions like Massage Therapists or Nurses.”

While there are unfortunately plenty of people who are looking for work, and a number of applications being filled out for each vacant position, many of the applicants don’t have the right combination of experience and qualifications needed.

“That’s why we did actually leave the community [for one job fair]; we tried to find those people who have done the job for a couple of years and try to encourage them to move here. Businesses are certainly having a hard time with both the attraction and retention of employees.”

There are other benefits to joining the Chamber, other than just networking and advocacy, including a Chamber insurance plan, discounts on fuel and Purolator. Currently, there are 575 members, making it one of the larger organizations in Alberta.


RMWB Economic Development

Since the May 2016 wildfire, the Economic Development branch of the RMWB has been thrust into the limelight as it looks to get the local economy back on its feet through policy changes and a number of support programs created in collaboration with the local business community, industry, and groups that serve a similar purpose like NAABA, the Chamber, and Community Futures.

Programs like the small business hotline hooked business owners up with $1,000 in immediate funding from the Red Cross and it allowed the RMWB to get valuable information about what was/is needed following re-entry which led to the Business and Economic Recovery Plan.

Some of that valuable information led to surprising findings when it came to job numbers in the local small and medium businesses, while most would have thought that the majority of job losses came post-wildfire, figures obtained by the RMWB showed that job numbers remained relatively flat following ‘The Beast’ and that most positions were lost due to the economic downturn.

In December of 2015, 600 local businesses employed 6,257 people. In April of 2016, just a month before the fire, that number was down to 3,936. Five months later in September, that figure dropped by just 218.

Part of the first phase was the Back to Business Resource Centre which led to the creation of the Business Resource Centre (2nd Floor of Timberlea Landing, 309 Powder Drive) which is a one-stop shop for all things business in Wood Buffalo.

“Businesses need information about workforce development, human resources, marketing and communications, cash flow,” said Haitas. “I think the fire sort of painted that picture clearer for us when it comes to what we should be focusing on as a department.”

The Resource Centre is truly a one-stop shop when it comes to business in the region, in one building business owners now have access to Permitting & Licensing, Safety Codes, Engineering, and Economic Development.

The Department also has Economic Development officers that can be seen through the Business Resource Centre, or by booking an appointment. They can help business owners work through any issues and even help them access funding through grants.

The Department also focuses on attraction and investment to the region, there’s been an increase in interest in the region since the wildfire.

“In terms of investment, we’ve been getting an increase of inquiries poking around Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo, taking the time to spend the money to come up and to tour around the area and to start thinking about moving their business / expanding their business here,” said Haitas.

Conversations that weren’t happening as frequently about a year ago, but now that time has passed and recovery is underway, there seems to be more comfort when it comes to investing in the region again, a strong growing economy and a slowly rising price of oil helps as well.

“Even when you look at the cost of land and the cost of leases and even availability of office space both commercial and retail, a few years ago it was almost prohibitively expensive to try and start or run a business because we were at capacity,” said Haitas. “Now we have a healthier environment where there are some vacancies.”

As the community continues to move further away from recovery and things get back to the ‘new normal’ the Economic Development branch plans to focus on growing and retaining the small and medium businesses that are already here.

“You probably know the old 80/20 rule, you spend way more money trying to attract businesses when really you should spend the money and your time in ones that are already here and grow them,” said Haley. “We do also want to attract the right companies here, but we want to look into our own backyard, a lot of our businesses here could be exporting some of their knowledge, expertise, and product.”

A big part of the job is to sell the community to prospective businesses, because let’s face it, unfortunately (although it’s been much better since the fire) there’s a negative view on much of this city.

“People see that it’s a real community, they see that people live here, and that also helps for business attraction too,” said Haitas. “Because you have potential investors that may have their misconceptions about Wood Buffalo is like, understand that there is a community here, there is a labor force and there are people that would be customers to their business and work in their business, all those little things are really important.”

The Department also helps to run the Business Support Network in collaboration with Community Futures Wood Buffalo and the Government Alberta. The location changes each month and it allows entrepreneurs to mingle.

“Something that we heard from entrepreneurs is that there aren’t enough networking events,” said Haley. “They actually did a study back in 2014 and what they found was that networking was a primary need so they [Business Support Network] designed all of their events around networking so people get that opportunity.”


Wood Buffalo Regional Innovation Network

The WBRIN is a new organization that has received three years of funding. Currently in its first year, member groups hope to bring more innovation to the region. It’s comprised of the RMWB, NAABA, the Chamber of Commerce, and Community Futures.

“We’re all at the table, and it’s really focused on how do we get more innovation in our region,” said Andrea Haley. “We want to spur innovation here. We have the oil sands in our backyard; we have people that are here for opportunity and with ideas.”


Community Futures Wood Buffalo

Community Futures plays a unique role in the region as a Community Economic Development player in the region.

“Our role is to assist businesses to effectively start up and expand, and we do that to help the community with its diversification and sometimes its sustainability strategies,” said Jon Close, General Manager at Community Futures Wood Buffalo. “We do that in a number of ways. We do business coaching, business training, we serve in a mentorship role, and one of the things that we’re most recognized for is providing access to patient capital for small business start-up or expansion.”

Community Futures caters generally to businesses that are start-ups or in their second or third round of expansion. They’re usually referred to Community Futures through the professional networks like lawyers and banks. Most clients served by Community Futures are ones that have a hard time accessing financing or capital through traditional routes like banks or credit unions.

“One of the focuses of this board is to build the capacity of the entrepreneurs that we’re working with. We’re more than just loans; we’re building capacity through training; we’re delivering weekly ‘How to do a Business Plan’, weekly cash flow management and more one-on-one training, and that all augments the level of access to capital provisions that we provide to our clients or potential clients.”

It’s an open door policy at Community Futures which is located on Franklin Avenue, downtown. While most clients hear about the organization through referrals, anyone can walk through the doors and access their services.

“Once they’re in our doors there are a number of ways to gain access to our services. Twice weekly we do group intake sessions, and in these sessions, we talk about the Wood Buffalo Recovery Loan Program, what’s expected in the program which includes a business plan. They can also register for any one of our training events online. We’re a service-oriented organization that’s here to help the small business community.”

Close is a relative newcomer to the community, having only arrived in the region in April with his wife after coming out of retirement to take this job with Community Futures Wood Buffalo, but he has quickly realized that the network of organizations that are in place to provide supports to small and medium sized businesses in the region is one that is increasingly working hand-in-hand.

“There’s something unique that happened, or that appears to have happened, although I wasn’t here in May of 2016, but this community seems, as a result of the wildfire, to have pulled together. I think the example of the business community support network is probably one of the strongest I’ve seen in my travels in the Community Futures world, certainly in Alberta but also perhaps coast-to-coast-to-coast across Canada. I think that this team pull together and is tighter, and this community of Fort McMurray and the players in it should be applauded for that level of support and dedication to the small business community here in the region.”


Fort McMurray Construction Association

There’s one final group that caters to helping business thrive in Wood Buffalo, and it’s one that has seen lots of action since the wildfire through the rebuild process. The Fort McMurray Construction Association began in 1987 to represent professionals of the construction industry by providing a united voice.

Today the membership is over 130 strong, representing general contractors, subcontractors, developers, tile companies, and a slew of other industry professionals. The Association is the voice of the construction industry in the region and helps its members through education and advocacy when it comes to regulation, promoting good public policy, and ensuring good government processes for business sustainability.


Plenty of Supports Available for Business in the Region

After speaking with all these individuals involved in supporting, maintaining and growing business in Wood Buffalo, it’s hard not to look at the future with a positive outlook. It seems the wildfire forced all of the business support groups to look deeper within and cut through the clutter to focus on delivering the basics as easily as possible, and they’ve started working together more as well.

In each conversation, there was a sense of togetherness between these groups, that as they continue to work together to reduce duplicate programs and services that the support services available to the business community in Wood Buffalo will become more streamlined, more efficient and ultimately a stronger support network.

There’s a sense of renewed hope that following the wildfire the local economy is starting to pick up. There’s a stronger emphasis on “buy local”, and more people seem willing to spend a little bit more to support a local business.

This is the kind of place where people come with big dreams, and there are several organizations that are more than willing to give a helping hand.


Photographs provided by Jenna Hamilton, NAABA, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo